Chewy, Chewy, Chewy

Brandon Olivas

Shanghai style noodles, a staple in every American, Shanghainese restaurant. This was my artifact dish. But to find the reason I chose this particular dish, I look at my first memories of this dish. I chose this dish because it was my way of returning home. It was a cibopathic means of traveling. A way of being with my family and being comforted by something familiar. Yet somehow I knew very little about this dish.

Ever since I could eat solid foods, I remember this particular dish. It wasn’t made by my mother, a Shanghai native, however. We always ate this dish at a local LA restaurant originally called Dragon Village. Now known as Mei Long Village, this was my family’s favorite spot. This was especially true when it came to eating with big groups. Whether it was friends or family, everyone wanted to eat Chinese food with us. The spot was great for bringing people together. It had round tables, lazy susans, beer and an atmosphere that makes everyone feel at home. All of the waiters and owners saw my sister and I grow up. They were family.

How did this affair with this one restaurant happen? It started in the 86 (or 87) when my mother, who had just moved to this country found the one Shanghainese restaurant in all of LA. At a time when Cantonese food was the only Chinese food, for my mother, this was the taste of home she was craving. But before I can tell this story of the restaurant, I must begin with the story of my 妈妈. My mother was born in Shanghai, China in 1965 and lived during the iron fist reign of communism. As most kids in China at the time were, and still are, my mother was born an only child. This, however, is the only thing she had in common with the rest of the kids her age. Virtually unheard of at the time, her parents were divorced. When my grandfather was away, he had another child with another woman. For my grandmother, this was unforgivable. She had to divorce him. There was no other choice, even if it meant a more difficult life for her and my mother.

After the divorce, life for my mother was often challenging. She always said that elementary school was one of the hardest times of her life. She says that the kids were cruel and made fun of her because of her parents’ divorce. Her teacher even chastised her for being child of divorce. The memory of this teacher is something that she will never forget. My mother hated this teacher because of how cruel she was. In Chinese culture and society, it is imperative that all elders are respected no matter what, no exceptions. So, for my mother, there was never a time where she could have gotten away with standing up for herself. There was one time that her teacher was so awful, she wouldn’t let my mother leave to go use the restroom. Inevitably, she ended up peeing in her pants in front of her whole class. For my mother, this is one of the ultimate acts of cruelty she has ever experienced and a story that burns forever in my memory.

Her experience in China would have been incredibly awful if it weren’t for the fact that her family wasn’t so loving and supportive. For her, this was her silver lining. The only thing that really made life bearable for her. My grandmother cared enough about her daughter that when it came to finding another husband, the man had to have my mother’s approval. The only man that my mother ever approved of would eventually become her true father. He was a widower and already had two sons. However, once together, they acted as if they had always been a family. For my mother, this unorthodox family, 家庭, unrelated by blood, was stronger than the bonds she has would ever have with her biological family.

In ‘81, my mother was given the opportunity to come to America, to live with her biological father. Up to this point, she had no previous interaction with him. Like any other fifteen year old would be, my mother was excited to meet her real father for the first time. However, her real father, would turn out to be the complete opposite what she had imagined.

The story of my mother is one of great determination, sacrifice, and success. After successfully graduating high school in four years with no previous experience of English, all while working full time, we find my mom living alone, working in LA with no car after her real father kicked her out of the house. Shortly after she found a little Shanghainese restaurant called Dragon Village, now known as Mei Long Village. This was her first taste of home outside of Shanghai itself. For my mom, this was the taste of home that brought her back to her childhood memories of eating with her family. Since that initial meal, she has been going back to that restaurant to this day. 5 owners and a name-change later, my mom is still going back to this restaurant.

Interestingly enough, my taste profile has not always favored the flavors of this restaurant. I personally had a weird time in my life where eating chinese food was something that I really got tired of. Eating it as often as we did made it less exciting. There seemed to be nothing interesting to me. Despite this, one dish was always on my plate. It was the Shanghai Noodles. There was something about those chewy noodles that kept you eating. No matter how full I was, I would always finish these unique thick noodles. Somehow, the combination of thick chewy noodles glazed in a savory sauce, combined with the sweetness of napa cabbage and onions and just the smallest amount of pork kept me coming back for more. I believe the simplicity of the dish has always been its biggest asset. The focus on the unique texture of the noodles combined with the balance of umami and sweetness gives an experience, for me, like no other.

Let’s fast-forward to my sophomore year at NYU. My freshman year I hardly ate out at all. As a ravenous swimmer, I really started to treat my body as a machine. I just ate to have enough energy to workout 6+ hours a day. Trying new foods and flavors was low on my list of priorities. Once sophomore was halfway through however, I finished my last season of competitive swimming ever. However, I decided to make a transition into bodybuilding. Therefore,  I was still eating bland boring foods such as baked chicken and brown rice. Even though I was eating bland foods, I now had more room in my schedule to start trying new foods again. With my mom’s suggestion of trying a Chinatown restaurant called Shanghai Asian Manor, I went in hoping to see how this restaurant compared to my hometown Chinese restaurant. Very similar in flavor and texture, this little NYC restaurant instantly transported me back to LA. I imagined I was sitting with 11 others at a table designed for 8 even though it was just me and my sister. The flavors of Shanghai Asian Manor instantly brought me back home. Mirroring the feelings that swell within my mom when she eats at Mei Long Village, this feeling of home is hard to find anywhere else. The way taste, smell, and feel all combine to simply overwhelm your mind with memory is hard to induce with any other medium. Every time I begin to feel homesick, I know Shanghai Asian Manor is there to instantly take me back. If only for a little while, this feeling of home alleviates this pain and brings me back to the uninhibited happiness experienced during childhood.

It is at this restaurant, Shanghai Asian Manor, where both my past and present come together and intersect in one moment. This moment of realization came shortly after our first restaurant review. It was a Thursday evening and we all met at the restaurant in Chinatown. A small restaurant with family style seating, I was the last one to come into the restaurant. In the beginning, what i like to call my inner fat kid came out. I was a little shy, a little uncomfortable, and a little awkward all at the same time. But I forced myself to start talking to my other classmates about the food and the class to get things rolling. Once we started talking, we very quickly started to get comfortable with each other.

As I was the only one that had been to the restaurant before, I helped facilitate what we would order for the meal. As the different dishes came out, I began channeling my mother and spewing all the various bits of information I accumulated from her. The traditions and meanings behind each dish and the way food was eaten all of a sudden would just come spewing out of my mouth. I began to realize that this was really what embodied knowledge was about. This knowledge of technique and tradition that was inside of me, was just the same inside the dish. Although the dish does not exactly speak to you, it has really become our job as cibopathic eaters to begin to decode the dish to find out the embodied knowledge within itself.

My parents have always been foodies, when they first started dating, their whole relationship was based on food. So why is it that I have been so attracted to such a simple and cheap dish? This dish is definitely not the most technically challenging dish to make, it is not what Shanghai is most famous for, and it can even be classified as a cheap and easy homemade meal. For some reason, I think I have connected to this dish for the mere fact that it actually is so simple. When my mother grew up, she always used to tell us that they didn’t have a lot of food to eat so they had to ration their government allotted food. This has influenced my mom’s cooking in a big way as well because she is always able to create phenomenal dishes with very few simple ingredients. Most of the time this was for necessity as she not only cooked and cleaned for the family, but she also worked full time.

This dish is equivalent to my mother’s cooking in the fact that it uses simple ingredients and creates amazing flavors. The three main ingredients combine to create a small symphony of flavors. I have always been a “man of simple pleasures” and the fact that this dish consists of 3-4 main ingredients really hits a chord with me. But this cannot be the end of this journey for me. Once again this dish creates a cibopathic route that I helps me to, once again, return home.

The simplicity of this dish and minimal protein shows me that this dish is not a “refined dish” but rather a dish of necessity. For me, this really strikes a chord with me. Knowing that my mother struggled living on her own, I begin to understand how this dish can sustain someone. For my mother, when she was first living on her own, eggs were a luxury. Something so simple that I have always taken for granted, I can see in Shanghai style noodles, the necessity to ration protein. The pork in the dish is always just enough to satisfy your taste needs.

Although I grew up fortunate enough to not struggle like my parents did, it is with this dish, that I understand the struggle that my parents went through, (my father’s story is one for another time). I have only been able to start to really grasp this through the cibopathic journey of this dish. This dish, and project, has been an homage to my mother. It always has been. The only way I could thank her for what she has gone through in order to create a brighter future for her family. Forever grateful, with this journey, I have begun to understand how strong, innovative, and willing people are to survive and thrive. It is only through these noodles that I can say thank you Mom.

More pictures:

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